Emma Car­darelli’s path from stu­dent to lauded chef

Montreal Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - HEIDI SMALL

This is the sev­enth in­stal­ment in the monthly se­ries Beyond the Plate, look­ing at the mo­ti­va­tions and pas­sions of lo­cal chefs. This month: Emma Car­darelli.

The 1983 com­ing-of-age film The Out­siders feels like an ideal back­drop to use in de­scrib­ing the ca­reer tra­jec­tory of Emma Car­darelli, of the restau­rants Nora Gray and Elena.

Car­darelli hails from the house of Fred Morin and David McMil­lan. These two mas­ter­ful chefs adopted a men­tor­ing tac­tic sim­i­lar to ven­er­a­ble direc­tor Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola, and set their sights, back in the early 1990s, on hir­ing young, then-un­known, now-revered chefs to hus­tle and learn in their kitchens. For The Out­siders, Cop­pola cast un­knowns who went on to have huge ca­reers, in­clud­ing Tom Cruise and Pa­trick Swayze. But while the film was burst­ing with testos­terone and angst, young Di­ane Lane in­stantly lit up the screen with her steely, con­fi­dent stance when she ap­peared. I saw a sim­i­lar un­com­pro­mis­ing en­ergy upon meet­ing Car­darelli.

When she tells of how she joined the ranks of Joe Beef’s chefs, and ex­pe­ri­enced the no­to­ri­ety that came with it, it be­comes clear that she has not only risen through the kitchen scene amid a boys’ club, but has blazed her own path.

Born and raised in Mon­treal West in the 1980s, Car­darelli con­fesses that, like other chefs fea­tured in this col­umn, “I kind of fell into this.”

“I didn’t grow up think­ing this was some­thing that I’m go­ing to do,” she says. “How­ever, I did grow up cook­ing and en­joy­ing it.”

Af­ter at­tend­ing Sa­cred Heart and Lower Canada Col­lege, Car­darelli ven­tured to Hal­i­fax, where she stud­ied psy­chol­ogy at Dal­housie Univer­sity.

Dur­ing her stud­ies, her boyfriend asked if she would like to work sum­mer months with him at Lake O’Hara Lodge, a hik­ing and ski­ing retreat nes­tled in the Rock­ies near the B.C.-Al­berta bor­der. “When we were ap­ply­ing for the job, he was like, ‘You know, you need to tell them what you’ll be do­ing!’ ”

Even though she had a pen­chant for cook­ing, Car­darelli wound up on her path by process of elim­i­na­tion.

“There were two jobs avail­able: house­keep­ing or work­ing in the kitchen. My im­me­di­ate re­ac­tion was, ‘I don’t want to clean toi­lets and change peo­ple’s sheets, so sign me up for the kitchen.’

“In univer­sity, I was al­ways the one cook­ing for my room­mates and or­ga­niz­ing din­ner par­ties. For ex­am­ple, on Thanks­giv­ing, I was the one go­ing to the market, pick­ing up veg­eta­bles, find­ing a turkey. For me, it was just a nat­u­ral thing to do.”

Car­darelli’s time in the lodge kitchen ended up be­ing a for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ence. “I started do­ing this job out west — the most beau­ti­ful place, where the Group of Seven used to paint — and I kind of just fell in love (with cook­ing). It was some­thing that I took to quite nat­u­rally and found quite easy ... I was pas­sion­ate from the get-go.”

While at Lake O’Hara Lodge, Car­darelli met a Québé­coise who had com­pleted her stud­ies at Mon­treal’s ITHQ culi­nary in­sti­tute. Feel­ing strongly that a culi­nary de­gree would be a log­i­cal move for Car­darelli, the woman en­cour­aged her to re­turn to Mon­treal.

“This woman said to me: ‘The tech­niques you’re go­ing to learn in cook­ing school are the same no mat­ter what cook­ing school you go to. They are go­ing to show you how to use a knife, what the ba­sic sauces are. It’s what you do with it that is re­ally go­ing to make the dif­fer­ence.’

“I re­ally took that to heart.” With an un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree in phys­i­ol­ogy and a new-found di­rec­tion, at the age of 23 Car­darelli at­tended the ITHQ, where French was the lan­guage of in­struc­tion.

“As an an­glo and true Mon­trealer where I did not re­ally speak any French up un­til that point, it was nerve-rack­ing ap­ply­ing, but I thank­fully passed the lan­guage test.”

Still, she ad­mits, “I was afraid, as some­one who is not re­ally very ex­posed to the fran­co­phone world, how I would be per­ceived.”

As it turned out, her wor­ries were un­founded.

“The peo­ple were very open and wel­com­ing. It was an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence,” Car­darelli says. “I re­ally en­joyed it, and was do­ing quite well. I was in the top of the class.”

What hap­pened next truly kicked things into high gear.

At 24, and get­ting ready to grad­u­ate, “my teacher re­ally liked me — so much that he rec­om­mended that I do a stage at Restau­rant Globe. Chef David McMil­lan had been his stu­dent, and he thought the way I do things was very sim­i­lar to him.”

She fondly re­mem­bers her teacher say­ing, “You need to go and meet him.”

A meet­ing was ar­ranged, but a funny thing hap­pened.

“The day I ar­rived ... to meet Dave, was his last day at Globe.”

McMil­lan was about to take the helm in the kitchen of Ros­alie, which was the lat­est out­growth of the group that owned what felt like all of St-Lau­rent Blvd., with restau­rants that in­cluded Buo­nan­otte and Globe.

Car­darelli re­mem­bers McMil­lan say­ing: “Don’t talk to me — I am not gonna be here any­more. Go find Fred. He’s in the kitchen. In­tro­duce your­self.”

Her first en­counter with Morin sounds much like other recol­lec­tions from those who started out un­der the famed chef ’s tute­lage: un­ex­pected and whim­si­cal.

“He was ir­rev­er­ent and offthe-cuff, as al­ways, and the first thing that he asked of me was not any­thing to do with any of my ex­pe­ri­ence. It was what kind of mu­sic do I lis­ten to and do I like reg­gae!”

Car­darelli’s stage at Globe was ac­cepted, and she had the good for­tune to shadow Morin once a week for about a month. “I was hooked on Fred,” she says, “be­cause his mind is so in­ter­est­ing.”

Fol­low­ing her stint with Morin, Car­darelli had a de­sire for more, and called him every day ask­ing if there was a chef po­si­tion avail­able. The an­swer was con­sis­tently no, un­til one day he sur­prised her: “Yes, there is!”

There was an op­por­tu­nity at Globe, and Car­darelli grabbed it. She honed her skills there for two years un­der Morin’s metic­u­lous eye, and stayed on for an­other year af­ter he cut ties with Globe to kick-start what be­came the Joe Beef empire.

“The last year that he wasn’t there was very dif­fi­cult for me,” Car­darelli re­mem­bers. “I was not in favour of the man­age­ment .... I didn’t like the way they were treat­ing peo­ple, and so I would mir­ror their treat­ment back to them, which they did not like.”

Af­ter giv­ing her no­tice, Car­darelli took some much-needed time off. She headed to Lon­don, with a Bri­tish pass­port, af­forded to her thanks

I had never done Ital­ian food be­fore — al­ways French food — but I had a few recipes I kept in my back pocket that I never used … that I was sav­ing for my own restau­rant.

to her English par­ents.

She spent about nine months work­ing in Lon­don. She worked in a one-star Miche­lin restau­rant, and re­mem­bers the gru­elling hours.

“I was work­ing five and a half days a week, 16-hour days, get­ting in at quar­ter to seven in the morn­ing and leav­ing at mid­night.”

Our Mon­treal sum­mer was beck­on­ing, and Car­darelli re­turned for a needed rest.

“I came home for a visit in June and went to see Fred. He was like, ‘Come see this new thing we are do­ing right next door (to Joe Beef ). We’re build­ing a new restau­rant!’ ”

Car­darelli wanted to leave Lon­don, but says she didn’t want to work for any­one but Morin. The bond and loy­alty are fierce, as with so many top chefs who learned from him.

Luck­ily, he of­fered her a cov­eted job cheff­ing at his new restau­rant, Liver­pool House.

Morin had al­ready hired his main all-star team, Car­darelli dis­closes, and they had been work­ing on all the prepa­ra­tions needed for the launch. But in true Morin style, he swiftly set the wheels in mo­tion for her re­turn to his kitchen.

“Fred kind of just gave me free rein and was like, ‘Yeah, OK, this is Emma and what­ever she says is cool,’ and they were all very skep­ti­cal of me at that point,” Car­darelli says.

In the fall of 2007, Liver­pool House’s doors swung open. François Côté was chef de cui­sine, lead­ing a promis­ing young cast that in­cluded Mak­sim Morin (later of Le Chien Fu­mant) and Marc-Olivier Frap­pier (now chef and co-owner of the Joe Beef-af­fil­i­ated Mon Lapin).

A young Ryan Gray presided over the bar and stel­lar wine se­lec­tion.

Within three months, Côté switched over to Joe Beef, and Car­darelli took the spot­light at Liver­pool House with her de­but as head chef.

For four years, she worked steadily and with much praise from her men­tors. All the while, she was build­ing her own empire in her mind.

“Dave (McMil­lan) sat me down one day and was like, ‘I can see you are gun­ning to open your own place, and when­ever you are ready, and what­ever you need, I will be there to sup­port you in any way that I can. Be it fi­nan­cially, or just with ad­vice, I am be­hind you 100 per cent,’ which was in­cred­i­ble. I had that force and power be­hind me!

“It re­ally made me feel like I could do any­thing.”

And with that re­in­force­ment, Car­darelli part­nered in 2012 with som­me­lier ex­traor­di­naire Gray and co-owner Lisa McCon­nell, leav­ing Liver­pool House to be­come chef and co-owner of Nora Gray, on St-Jac­ques St. in Lit­tle Bur­gundy.

That was fol­lowed this year by Elena, a heav­enly pizza spot on Notre-Dame St. in St-Henri.

“I had never done Ital­ian food be­fore — al­ways French food — but I had a few recipes I kept in my back pocket that I never used at Liver­pool House that I was sav­ing for my own restau­rant.”

For our Beyond the Plate ad­ven­ture, we took a jaunt over to Jean-Talon Market, where Car­darelli is a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor. We se­lected lush cherry bomb pep­pers from Lino Birri, of Birri et frères, and headed back to Nora Gray to pre­pare red pep­per salsa, a crowd favourite served nightly along­side the restau­rant’s home­made fo­cac­cia. (You can watch the video at mon­tre­al­gazette. com.)

Car­darelli’s love for food is sur­passed only by her de­sire to im­ple­ment in her own restau­rants a strong set of val­ues, learned dur­ing her rise through Mon­treal’s culi­nary ranks.

Like Di­ane Lane out­shin­ing her young male coun­ter­parts in The Out­siders, this tire­less chef — rec­og­nized by peers for her talent and stead­fast­ness — has defini­tively taken cen­tre stage.


Emma Car­darelli la­dles red pep­per salsa at Nora Gray. When her men­tor en­cour­aged her to open a restau­rant, she says, “it re­ally made me feel like I could do any­thing.”


Emma Car­darelli is a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor to Lino Birri’s Jean-Talon Market stand.


Car­darelli pre­pares a dish in 2010 at Liver­pool House, where she worked as head chef for four years.

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